Choppy waters ahead as US seeks to ramp up Pakistan pressure

Relations between the strategic allies are tense after the US announced the cancellation of $300m in aid to Pakistan.

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    Secretary of State Pompeo arrives in Islamabad on Wednesday as ties with Pakistan at an all-time low [Reuters]
    Secretary of State Pompeo arrives in Islamabad on Wednesday as ties with Pakistan at an all-time low [Reuters]

    Islamabad, Pakistan - As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to the Pakistani capital Islamabad this week, with relations between the erstwhile strategic allies at a low ebb, analysts warn the road ahead could be even tougher for the South Asian nation.

    Pompeo lands in Islamabad on Wednesday and will hold talks with the country's top civilian and military leadership during a one-day visit, before continuing on to neighbouring India.

    On Sunday, the Pentagon confirmed the US was moving to cancel $300m in Coalition Support Funds, a reimbursement payment to Pakistan's military, "due to a lack of Pakistani decisive actions" against armed groups targeting US and Afghan forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

    The move was part of a sustained effort by the US administration to pressure Pakistan, after President Donald Trump cut more than $1.1bn in security assistance in January, accusing Pakistan of "nothing but lies and deceit".

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    Pakistan denies it supports any armed groups, saying it has carried out indiscriminate military operations against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (sometimes called the Pakistan Taliban) and all other armed groups that have operated on its territory.

    The Pakistan Taliban's presence in the country's northwestern tribal districts, along the border with Afghanistan, has been severely degraded by a series of military operations launched since 2014, but the group still launches sporadic large-casualty attacks on Pakistani targets.

    Pakistan claims the Tehreek-e-Taliban is being offered safe haven in eastern Afghanistan, from where the group has launched several attacks on Pakistani forces.

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    The principal US complaint for years, however, has been that Pakistan has failed to act against leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the feared Haqqani Network who, it says, have been based in Pakistan for more than a decade.

    Last month, tensions rose still further when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan of supporting hundreds of Afghan Taliban fighters as they launched a raid on the eastern Afghan city of Ghazni.

    Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Muhammad Faisal, responding to the charge, said: "These are completely baseless allegations with no evidence."

    'Crucial visit'

    The Ghazni offensive, the first major Taliban assault on a city in months, and the timing of the aid cut mean Pompeo's visit comes at a particularly sensitive time, as longtime Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has just taken the reins of power, analysts say.

    "This visit is crucial," said Hassan Akbar, director at the Jinnah Institute think-tank in Islamabad. "It will set the tone for the new administration in Islamabad, regarding their approach to the United States."

    The timing of the visit, coming as it does so soon after Ghazni and the aid cut announcement, is also significant, said Akbar.

    "While the Ghazni offensive failed to meet its objective, it has given a serious setback to the efforts at peace in Afghanistan, and has clearly demonstrated the weakness of the US' recent Afghanistan strategy," he said.

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    "We expect that they will be looking to put more pressure on Pakistan, to either cut ties with, or use whatever influence they feel Pakistan has, with the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table."

    The signs leading into the visit suggest difficult conversations will take place. On Sunday night, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi warned that relations with the US had reached the point where they were "almost non-existent".

    "With the visit of the US secretary of state we have an opening and a beginning can be made, and we will try to build a consensus in areas of mutual interest," he told reporters in Islamabad. "It is our shared objective to cleanse the region and the world of terrorism."

    'No carrots, only sticks'

    Zahid Hussain, a senior journalist and security analyst based in Islamabad, said Pakistan should not expect an easy set of meetings on Wednesday, particularly giving the timing of the $300m assistance cancellation.

    "The message is clear, it is basically a departure from the previous administration's policy of the carrot and the stick," he said. "Now, it seems that there is no carrot, only a stick."

    Hussain warned while the US may be prepared to take a more aggressive stance with Pakistan, it may be impossible for Pakistan to deliver on Trump's demands.

    "To expect Pakistan to fight the US war here on Pakistani soil may be expecting too much," he said, pointing out many Afghan Taliban commanders are understood to have rebased themselves to Afghanistan from Pakistan, as the armed group's offensive against the Kabul government strengthens.

    For Akbar, too, the prospects for positive outcomes from Pompeo's visit are limited.

    "In the coming days, I think the situation in Afghanistan is going to get worse. And as that gets worse, I see the US likely blaming Pakistan for 'not taking action' against armed groups," he said.

    "It's a bleak situation."

    Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera's digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim

    What does the US want from Pakistan?

    Inside Story

    What does the US want from Pakistan?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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